ROGER ROSENBLATT: The difference between a photograph of a crime and a painting of a crime lies in the durability of the evidence. A photo of a murder taking place will land the killer in jail, and that'll be that. A painting of a murder in progress is the work of the imagination. It may or may not be used to jail the killer.
But it has deeper and more long-lasting uses for the public. The subject that brings this distinction to mind is the painting of Nikolai Getman.
Getman is a 78 year old artist living in Orel, south of Moscow, who was imprisoned in a Soviet gulag from 1946 to 1953. Later, he painted scenes of prison guards and prison torture and death, in other words, the essence of Soviet political life.
Those who have looked upon Getman paintings like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who knew the gulags firsthand too, have been reminded of the horrific oppression of the recent Russian past. Many Russians do not wish to be reminded so Getman's work is going uncatalogued and undisplayed.
The new Russia does not wish to be reminded of the old Russia. It does not wish to be punished by memory. There are almost no photographs of the gulags in existence, but, in any case, these paintings are far more powerful, one might say more tormenting. It is because they work both on the eye and on what is behind the eye.
To view a photo of say the newly unearthed Bosnian graveyards is to be reminded of what people have done but to see a painting of a human being transformed into a skeleton, a work of brushes, canvas, and oil, is to be reminded of what people are capable of doing. The work of the artist reaches down into the astonishing impressive creativity of the human mind, which includes the creativity of evil.
There is not a photograph of Dorian Gray that degenerated but a painting, a subterranean artist or a celestial one was drawing from the model of Gray's shrinking soul. The effect of Getman's paintings is particularly strong because they are works of memory. Once released from his gulag, to which he was sent for drawing a mocking cartoon of Stalin on a piece of cigarette paper, he recalled and illuminated the terrible world he had visited.
Then he hid his paintings away. He hid them because if they had been brought to light, he would have been sent to prison again. There is no such danger today, and yet, the authorities and a great many ordinary people still want him to hide his paintings. In so doing, they seek to hide away memory, perhaps to obliterate it. It is uncomfortable to see how the state behaved and how the citizens ignored how the state behaved. It is uncomfortable to look into a painting and recognize complicity.
Milan Kundera's famous "Victim" arises once again. The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. It takes more effort to forget a painting than a photograph, so the Russians may be wise in averting their eyes from Getman's work. They have an election coming up, after all, and if they decide to turn to Communism for salvation one more time, they will not want any souvenirs around of what the Communists could do.
These kinds of people sent millions to their death, Getman told New York Times reporter Alessandro Stanley, and Russians are going to vote for them again. Were they to display his paintings at the polling places, would those voters change their mind? What would they see if they looked? Who would they see?
I'm Roger Rosenblatt.